Guided by (too many) Voices

It’s funny how a few things in school remain mostly normal despite everything else feeling so strange this year.  Like the annual arrival of National Honors Society nominations– it was a nice reminder of “normal” when a student in my Zoom last week asked if we could set up a breakout room so he could run some elements of his NHS application essay by me.  I was happy to do it–let’s be honest, any chance for human interaction with a student is a gift in the Zoom world!

His questions were pretty standard ones, but I was happy to see that even via the less-than-ideal conferring environment of Zoom, my student (we’ll call him Andy) had clearly internalized some good writing habits from the semester.  His first question was the one that made me the happiest: “My dad thinks I should make this piece really formal but I feel like it needs to have, like, the personal voice that you always talk about, especially since it’s a piece where I’m trying to share some of my personal views.”  

Oh yeah.  That’s the good stuff.  Play it on a loop when your writers start saying things like that on their own–it’s like a symphony.

His follow up questions were more specific, but were also clearly motivated by the conversation with dad–some stylistic choices he’d made struck dad as too informal.  Dad, in short, didn’t think “voice” should really be a thing here.

But we worked through it.  He was in a good place and the essay wasn’t perfect, but it was personal, and it had a lot of Andy in it, which is sort of the point of an application essay.  Three cheers for the power of voice!

Parents may have their own vision of good writing (photo via Pexels)

…And then a few days later, what should appear in my inbox but an email from Andy’s dad.  On the one hand, a very encouraging email making it clear that Andy has the type of parental support at home that every writing teacher wishes all of their young writers had  On the other hand…the email was literally asking me to relitigate every point Andy had already worked through with me in our chat a few days before.  

His concerns are worth outlining briefly:  

First, he was extremely uncomfortable with an essay for something like NHS being anything less than “formal”.  This part didn’t surprise me too much since Andy had mentioned dad brought his “business writing” preferences to the table.  It felt off to him that someone applying for something of prestige would engage in writing that wasn’t businesslike.  Understandable, but a narrow perspective of the role of a writer’s authorial presence and importance.

His other two major concerns were about stylistic choices, the most noteworthy being Andy’s attempt to do something really ambitious (for a HS writer I mean).  Andy had made a really cool writerly move.  He’d constructed a rather elegant parallel structure stringing together multiple reasons why being a moral and ethical citizen matters.  In order to create a more memorable statement, Andy made an initial observation and then built on using phrases that repeated the initial verb-object construct of the sentence.  It was really good writing.  It went something like this:

“A person’s role in society has a lot to do with being a good person.  Being a trustworthy person.  Being a person who makes moral choices when faced with the opportunity.”

Dad’s complaint:  Those are sentence fragments.  

I’m reminded a lot of the parents who, when you assure them their daughter is actually a fairly talented writer, blurts out, “She can’t even spell!”  In other words, we are haunted as modern English teachers by the old-fashioned formal writing rules that have ruled the English classroom for so long.  And at home many of our students may be getting torn between two writing philosophies.

You can explain voice and the value of active authorial choices all day to students, but it’s important that we realize that at home they may be hearing a very different message from other adults whose opinions matter to them (and well they should!).  Pushing back against this can be difficult but it speaks, I think, to the importance of good writing instruction. 

The most obvious course of action is to continue to be very explicit about teaching students to become writers who make decisions and who can speak to and explain the reasoning behind those decisions as Andy did with me.  Clearly Andy didn’t just cave to his dad’s notion of “Formal essay” format and moreover, he had at least a rudimentary sense of the jargon needed to help convince dad that his way at least deserved consideration. 

The other powerful tool we have to help push back against well-meaning but old fashioned writing notions (and parents) is the mentor text.  While I didn’t have a model NHS essay for dad, I was able to direct him to some good websites for model college essays, a similar genre demanding a personal touch over dry informality (at least if you hope to be noticed).  The limits of many adherents of the “Formal” school of writing are defined by what they do or don’t read.  When they see good real-life writing, they usually begin to see the light as well.

I don’t know if Andy will completely win the debate with his dad (dad’s reply to me was a very brief “Thanks for your input,” so I’m not sure I sold him completely!), but it’s a helpful reminder of how often our writers receive mixed messages about what writing is.  We have to make sure our part of the message remains clear.  And loud. (I know I know–sentence fragment!)


Find us on Facebook or let me know how you communicate with students whose parents have a different writing vision than you do at @ZigThinks on Twitter.


  1. I have seldom received this kind of pushback from parents, but I often receive it from students who want to continue writing in an un-thinking, compliance-based style because it’s what has gotten them grades in the past. I think there are still a lot of rule-and-compliance-based English teachers out there, and it confuses students a lot when they get freedom to make choices in one class only to get yanked back to compliance the next year. I don’t know what the solution is. Thanks for this excellent piece. I recently did a similarly-themed post on Moving Writers – Tools Over Rules.

    1. Yes–the bouncing back and forth between philosophies INSIDE of English classrooms could easily be a whole book! It’s SO hard on kids. Just seems so obvious to me (and I know I’m preaching to the choir here) that the best solution is to teach them how to make choices as writers so that they can respond to any writing task with informed decision making.

  2. I also wonder how that informal nature is received by college boards and other “readers” like your NHS group. While we work on voice and writing like mentors in class, to me, our students need to understand writing those kinds of essays is a genre unto itself. That dad might be someone on a scholarship committee or hiring committee. We want personality in an essay, and good writing is good writing. If we have to explain and even justify to our readers, does that creatively written essay fulfill its purpose?

    1. Interesting and fair points. Is the alternative that we discourage students from ever utilizing a personal voice or creatively play with things like syntax or diction because some readers might not get it? I get the concern, but I don’t think that’s the answer–and from what I know of college entrance writing, to use one high-stakes example, there seems to be a generally tendency in favor of more creative and personal writing. Among friends who I have from college in the business world, their common lament is with young adults who can’t write at all, So again, an ability to manipulate language and create a memorable phrase within the range of semi-formal/professional (or better yet, to be able to meet the demands of a given genre based on authorial judgement) still seems like the best instructional goal to me?

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